May Day & the Situation of Workers in Myanmar

Myanmar Spring Chronicle – May 01 Scenes
MoeMaKa, May 02, 2024

May Day & the Situation of Workers in Myanmar

On May 1, recognized globally as International Workers’ Day, the situation of workers’ rights in Myanmar is severely impacted by military coups, armed conflicts, and political suppression. Many workers are forced to flee to other countries to evade military service laws. The working class in Myanmar is currently facing numerous challenges.

Since the end of 2011, labor rights issues have gained increasing attention, marking a significant turning point in the development of workers’ rights. Before this period, labor leaders were often arrested and imprisoned for protesting and demanding labor rights, which were seen as actions against the SLORC junta ruling at the time.

After 2011, under U Thein Sein’s USDP-led government during Myanmar’s so-called transitional period to democracy, strikes for increased wages and improved working conditions were permitted as issues between employers and workers. This led to the enactment of labor laws, including the right to form trade unions, and subsequent protests for better wages and conditions. As a result, Myanmar saw increased transparency and employment opportunities, spurred by foreign investment. However, there is still a need to further labor rights, autonomy of labor organizations, and the implementation of laws and procedures.

Since 2011, labor rights organizations have emerged, making progress in setting the minimum wage, reviewing labor policies, and more. In Myanmar, where inflation is rampant, the minimum wage is reviewed every two years. However, this practice was interrupted by the military coup on February 1, 2021, causing the situation to revert to its pre-2011 state.

Post-coup, some trade unions were declared illegal, and labor organization leaders were arrested, with some activists spending months or years in prison. Martial law was declared in the townships with Yangon’s factories, leading to severe punishments for labor movements under martial law.

Over the past three years, labor rights movements have significantly diminished due to the politicization and suppression of demands for labor rights and wage increases. The Ministry of Labor of the Military Council has raised the minimum wage only once, from 4,800 to 5,800 kyats.

During this period, commodity prices have skyrocketed, with some products experiencing price hikes of up to three times. Meanwhile, the minimum wage increased by only 1,000 kyats. Before the military takeover, one pyi of rice cost 2,000 kyats; now, it is around 6,000 kyats. Workers, whose daily wage value has drastically decreased, are forced to cut back on food and living expenses.

There are ongoing debates about whether European companies should continue ordering labor-based products from Myanmar’s garment and shoe factories, and about the campaign for comprehensive economic sanctions against Myanmar.

In the context of declining labor rights, there are differing opinions among Myanmar activists abroad and some European policymakers on whether to encourage investments in Myanmar and whether existing businesses and orders should continue.

Some argue that without wage-earning jobs in Myanmar, both entrepreneurs and workers will lose job opportunities. Although Myanmar’s labor population ratio is not as high as in some countries, areas like Yangon, Bago, and Pathein have significant wage-labor businesses. Workers in these industries are predominantly young and middle-aged people from Ayeyarwady, the plains, and Rakhine regions, with a higher percentage of women than men. Their income supports families in these regions. Policymakers and campaigners must seriously consider whether sanctions that damage these opportunities should be implemented.

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